THE GRAVE IN THE WILDERNESS
But on the morrow I, who desired to see the ways of the Compellers, learned a lesson that ended my scholarship days with them. James Johnstone seemed somewhat moved by the matter of the bairns, but by the morning light he had again hardened his heart, like Pharaoh, more bitterly than before. For he was now on his own land, and because his thought was that the King would hold him answerable for the behaviour and repute of his people, he became more than ordinarily severe. This he did, being a runnagate from the wholesome ways of the Covenant; and, therefore, the more bitter against all who remained of that way.
He drove into the yards of the farm-towns, raging like a tiger of the Indies, now calling on the names of the goodman of the house, and now upon other suspected persons. And if they did not run out to him at the first cry, he would strike them on the face with the basket hilt of his shable till the blood gushed out. It was a sick and sorry thing to see, and I think his Majesty's troopers were ashamed; all saving the Johnstone's own following, who laughed as at rare sport.
But I come now to tell what I saw with my own eyes of the famous matter of Andrew Herries, which was the cause of my cousin of Lochinvar leaving their company and riding with me and Hugh Kerr all the way to Edinburgh. As, indeed, you shall presently hear. And the manner of its happening was as follows. We were riding full slowly along the edge of a boggy loch in the parish of Hutton, and, as usual, quartering the ground for Whig refugees, of whom it was suspected that there were many lurking in the neighbourhood. We had obtained no success in our sport, and Westerhall was a wild man. He ran about crying ‘Blood and wounds!’ which was a favourite oath of his, and telling what he would do to those who dared to rebel, and harbour preachers and preachers' brats on his estate. For we had heard that the lass who had bearded us on the brae-face by the school, with her little brother Alec in her hand, was the daughter of Roger Allison, a great preacher of the hill-folk who had come to them over from Holland, to draw them together into some of their ancient unity and power.
Westerhall, then, knew not as yet in whose house she was dwelling, but only that she had been received by one of his people. But this, if it should come to Claverhouse's ears, was enough to cause him to set a fine upon the Johnstone—so strict as against landlords were the laws concerning intercommuning with rebels or rebels' children on their estates. This was indeed the cause of so many of the lairds, who at first were all on the side of the Covenant, turning out Malignants and persecutors. And more so in the shire of Dumfries than in Galloway, where the muirs are broader, the King's arm not so long, and men more desperately dour to drive.
All of a sudden, as we went along the edge of a morass, we came upon something that stayed us. It was, as I say, in Hutton parish, a very pleasant place, where there is the crying of many muir-fowl, and the tinkle of running water everywhere. All at once a questing dragoon held up his arm, and cried aloud. It was the signal that he had found something worthy of note. We all rode thither—I, for one, praying that it might not be a poor wanderer, too wearied to run from before the face of the troopers' wide-spreading advance.
However, it was but a newly-made grave in the wilderness, hastily dug, and most pitifully covered with green fresh-cut turves, in order to give it the look of the surrounding morass. It had very evidently been made during the darkness of the night, and it might have passed without notice then. But now, in the broad equal glare of the noon-tide, it lay confessed for what it was—a poor wandering hill-man's grave in the wild.
‘Who made this?’ cried Westerhall. ‘Burn me on the deil's brander, but I'll find him out!’
‘Hoot,’ said Clavers, who was not sharp set that day, perhaps having had enough of Westerhall's dealing with the bairns yesterday, ‘come away, Johnstone; 'tis but another of your Eskdale saints. Ye have no lack of them on your properties, as the King will no doubt remember. What signifies a Whig Johnstone the less? There's more behind every dyke, and then their chief is aye here, able and willing to pay for them!’
This taunt, uttered by the insolent scorning mouth of Claverhouse, made Westerhall neither to hold nor bind. Indeed the fear of mulet and fine rode him like the hag of dreams.
‘Truth of God!’ cried he; for he was a wild and blasphemous man, very reckless in his words; ‘do so to me, and more also, if I rack not their limbs, that gied the clouts to wrap him in. I'se burn the bed he lay in, bring doon the rafter and roof-tree that sheltered him—aye, though it were the bonny hoose o' St. Johnstone itsel', an' lay the harbourer of the dead Whig cauld i' the clay, gin it were the mither that bore me! Deil reestle me gin I keep not this vow.’
Now, the most of the men there were upon occasion bonny swearers, not taking lessons in the art from any man; but to the Johnstone they were as children. For, being a runnagate Covenanter, and not accustomed in his youth to swear, he had been at some pains to learn the habit with care, thinking it a necessary accomplishment and ornament to such as did the King's business, especially to a captain of horse. Which, indeed, it hath ever been held, but in moderation and with discretion. Westerhall had neither, being the man he was.
‘Fetch the Whig dog up!’ he commanded.
The men hesitated, for it was a job not at all to their stomachs, as well it might not be that hot day, with the sun fierce upon them overhead.
‘Tut, man,’ said Clavers, ‘let him lie. What more can ye do but smell him? Is he not where you and I would gladly see all his clan? Let the ill-favoured Whig be, I say!’
‘I shall find out who sheltered him on my land. Howk him up!’ cried Westerhall, more than ever set in his mad cruelty at Colonel Graham's words. So to the light of the merciless day they opened out the loose and shallow grave, and came on one wrapped in a new plaid, with winding sheets of pure linen underneath. These were all stained and soaked with the black brew of the moss, for the man had been buried, as was usual at the time, hastily and without a coffin. But the sleuthhound instinct of the Johnstone held good. ‘Annandale for the hunt, Nithsdale for the market, and Gallowa' for the fecht!’ is ever a true proverb.
‘Let me see wha's aucht the sheet?’ he said.
So with that, Westerhall unwound the corner and held it up to the light.
‘Isobel Allison!’ he exclaimed, holding the fine linen up to the light, and reading the name inwoven, as was then the custom when a bride did her providing. ‘The widow Herries, the verra woman—ain dam's sister to the Whig preacher—sant amang the hill-folk. Weel ken I the kind o' her. To the hill, lads, and we will burn the randy oot, even as I said. I'll learn the Hutton folk to play wi' the beard o' St. Johnstone.’
‘Foul Annandale thief!’ said I, but stilly to myself, for who was I to stand against all of them? Yet I could see that, save and except the chief's own ragged tail, there were none of the soldiers that thought this kind of work becoming.
Ere he mounted, Westerhall took the poor, pitiful body, and with his foot despitefully tumbled it into a moss-hole.
‘I'll show them what it is to streek dead Whigs like honest men, and row them dainty in seventeen hunder linen on my land!’ cried Westerhall.
And indeed it seemed a strange and marvellous Providence to me, that young Isobel Allison, when she wove in that name with many hopes and prayers, the blood of her body flushing her cheek with a maiden's shy expectation, should have been weaving in the ruin of her house and the breaking of her heart.
Now the cot of the widow Herries was a bonny place. So I believe, but of its beauty I will not speak. For I never was back that way again—and what is more, I never mean to be.
We came to the gavel end of the house. Westerhall struck it with his sword.
‘We'll sune hae this doon!’ he said to us that followed. Then louder he cried, ‘Mistress, are ye within?’ as the custom of the country is.
A decent woman with a white widow's cap on her head was scraping out a dish of hen's meat as we rode to the door. When she saw us on our horses about the close, the wooden bowl fell from her hands and played clash on the floor.
‘Aye, my bonny woman,’ quoth Westerhall, ‘this comes o' keeping Whigs aboot your farm-toon. Whatna Whig rebel was it ye harboured? Oot wi't, Bell Allison! Was it the brither o' ye, that cursed spawn o' the low country? Doon on your knees an' tell me, else it is your last hour on the earth.’
The poor woman fell on her knees and clasped her hands.
‘O Westerha'!’ she stammered, ‘I'll no lee till ye. It was but a puir Westland man that we kenned not the name o'. We fand him i' the fields, and for very God's pity brocht him hame to our door and laid him on the bed. He never spak' 'yea' or 'nay' to us all the time he abode in our hoose-place, and so passed without a word late yestreen.’
‘Lying Whig!’ cried Westerhall, ‘who was it that found him? Whatna yin o' your rebel sons—chasing up hill and doon dale after your blackguard brither, was it that brocht him hame?’
‘I kenna wha it was that brocht him. It was a wee bit lass that fand him when she was playin' i' the moss wi' her brither.’
‘I ken your wee bit lasses,’ said Westerhall; ‘she's a bonny sprig o' that braw plant o' grace, Roger Allison, wha's heid shall yet look blythe on the West Port o' Edinburgh, wi' yin o' his cantin' thief's hands on ilka side o't.’
The poor woman said no word, but out from the chamber door came our little lass of yesterday and stood beside her.
‘Wha's plaidie is this?’ again quoth Westerhall, holding up the plaid in which the dead man had been wrapped, like an accusation in his hand; ‘to the hill, boys, and lay hand on this honest woman's honest sons. King Charles wull hae something to say to them, I'm thinkin'.’
With that he leapt from his horse, throwing the reins to the widow.
‘Hae, haud my horse,’ he said, ‘an' gin ye stir an inch, ye'll get an ounce o' lead in you, ye auld shakin' limb o' Sawtan.’
men of the moss hags
125th anniversary 'slow reading' serialisation.